In the rocky plateau of Northern Ontario, where bank branches are few and far between, it's not easy for a financial planner to reach all of his or her customers. Bank of Montreal is virtually shortening these geographic distances with the use of videoconferencing.

One financial planner struggled to cover five far-apart branches. "She would get out to those branches once a month and try to set up her calendar to meet all her clients during those short windows of time," says Paul Dilda, head of branch channel for North America (including the U.S. and Canadian banking franchise) at the $403 billion-asset Toronto bank. "Our hypothesis was she could be much more productive if a great deal of the time she was servicing customers with the help of technology."

The bank has installed Cisco Tandberg videoconferencing workstations (essentially a monitor with an embedded camera and a dedicated remote or touch pad) at 50 retail branches. This is just the start — across the U.S. and Canada, the bank has 1,600 branches (700 are in the U.S.) and plans are to gradually expand the rollout.

Rather than self-service video kiosks, which some banks such as Citi are using in branches to provide off-hours help and ease the branch staff workload, Bank of Montreal's approach is assisted service. A branch employee always helps the customer reach the remote specialist at the other end of the videoconferencing setup, for two reasons. "One is just to make sure everything's going fine with the technology," Dilda says. "It's not complicated, but we don't want to make anything the customer's issue. Second is, depending on the nature of the conversation, paperwork may need to go back and forth. Right now we're not able to do that electronically, so the banker that's sitting with the customer can assist with any brochures or paperwork that need to be delivered."

Dilda says the bank spent $5,000 for each base unit, plus installation, training, and servicing costs; support is also provided by the internal audio-visual team. The bank considered higher-end "telepresence" technology that provides larger screens and higher definition video, but opted for units that provide good quality at a price that made it affordable for mass distribution. Dilda also wanted a solution "that wouldn't consume a ton of bandwidth and that was easy to deploy."

The return on this investment will be at least two-fold. One obvious benefit is a reduction in travel, which provides cost and environmental savings. Another is that specialist sales staff that use videoconferencing are more productive because they spend more of their time in conversations with customers than on the road.

In addition to the financial planners, some small business bankers have begun using the videoconferencing technology.

Customers have been "extraordinarily accepting of the technology," Dilda says. Employee acceptance has been a challenge. "Your sales model has to support appropriate usage," he notes. Some experts don't want to relinquish sales to someone else. Other employees need to become familiar with the technology. "Where they embraced it and used it heavily, we saw tremendous uptake and ROI," Dilda says. "In other areas it was mixed, but only because they weren't using the technology." In some cases, it's just normal human behavior for a branch employee to say, "why don't you come back, she'll be here next week" instead of investing an hour in sitting down with that customer. "There could be any number of reasons [for lack of employee adoption] and we're still trying to decouple that," Dilda says. "You can't just push the technology. And not everyone automatically gravitates to it."

Bank of Montreal also uses videoconferencing on the corporate side, where technology from Blue Sky facilitates internal meetings. And some of the wealth management groups within the bank have deployed high-definition videoconferencing.

The bank is weighing carefully where it will deploy videoconferencing next. "We're trying to continue to garner learnings about the customer experience," Dilda says. "It's not for every situation." It needs to truly fill a customer need, for instance where the alternative would be waiting a long time to access an expert. "I do see this as a tremendous opportunity for us to punch above our weight and provide tremendous accessibility in places where previously it was not even possible."